Why designers should flip the brief
When & how to solve the thing your client never asked for
Not to be dramatic, but solving for the wrong thing is the number one thing that holds designers back.
A client thinks they need X. So a designer goes & does it.
Par for the course.
The only problem? They actually needed Y to get where they wanted to go.
That’s why the best designers are lead investigators.
They hear out their clients (or teams if they’re in-house).
Listen closely to what they ask for.
But then zoom out and consider the broader context before jumping into Figma.
Things like the category, business, & what’s happening in culture.
All in service of delivering the most value, by helping their clients get a better feel for what they really need.
It’s the #1 thing that separates the good designers from the great ones.
The ability to identify the highest impact problems to solve, even when it’s something their client or boss didn’t ask for, is how you turn one-off transactions into life-long relationships.
Good designers do what they’re told.
Great designers get their teams to where they want to go.
For example, clients come to Off-Menu all the time looking for design help.
A few months ago a founder, let’s call him Max, came to us asking for a redesign.
He believed his company’s website was outdated and needed a fresh look & feel.
And that his content could be easier to digest & be presented in a more captivating way.
He wasn’t wrong. A super reasonable request.
But as we got to know Max, we learned a few things.
He set incredibly ambitious growth goals for the coming year.
He dreamed of building the next great technology brand.
Something along the lines of Apple or Telsa.
It would have been easy to jump straight to design.
Generous budget. Nice team.
But before we signed the scope, we asked some of their potential customers to browse their current website & explain what their product did.
Their answers were all over the place.
While they asked for a fresh set of paint, what they really needed was a clear & compelling value proposition (in addition to design of course).
A redesign on its own wouldn’t help them get to where they wanted to go.
So we put Max through our process.
Unpacked his vision.
Repositioned his brand.
And gave his team a new way to explain what they were doing in a way that emotionally resonated.
Not just with customers, but also with prospective talent.
A call to action to rally like-minded engineers to their cause.
Their brand story inspired new creative possibilities for the brand.
The kind of thing they would have ever arrived at without framing the problem from a completely new angle.
If you’re a designer looking to gain more influence with your clients, here are 3 great ways to help your clients understand what they really need (instead of what they ask for).
Keep in mind, I always do these things before signing a scope. Or when I was full-time at Twitter, before kicking off a new project.
1. Dig into their business goals, not just their creative ones
If you can understand where they want their business to be in a year or two, you can evaluate if their initial ask is actually the best way to get there.
Backcasting is one of my favorite ways to unpack this.
I often ask, “What’s your dream headline a year or two from now?”
And then follow up, asking them for dream metrics that support that headline.
Lastly, I’ll prod at what’s keeping them up at night from fulfilling that headline.
To ensure whatever we propose will squash it.
2. Clarify what impact looks like
Redesigns are bright shiny objects. People often want them, sometimes without putting much thought into why.
To get clarity, I always ask, “If we work together and it goes better than you could ever imagine, what does that look like?”
This is another way to understand what their team is actually trying to achieve.
Answers sometimes revolve around inspiring the best talent to join their team.
Other times they center on cultural impact & explosive growth.
Oftentimes teams are gearing up for a raise and it’s all about getting the bag from investors.
(They think they need a website, when really a pitch deck is the golden goose.)
Learning “what success looks like” will help you figure out if the thing they’re asking for is the most helpful way to achieve it.
3. Play it back with punch
Whenever I verbally try to guide a client to an alternative approach, it’s usually met with resistance.
That’s why our proposals always play back what we hear in our initial discovery call to a) make sure clients feel heard and b) paint a through-line for why an alternative approach might make more sense to get them where they want to go.
All done in a way that’s easy-to-digest.
Seeing is believing.
It makes all the difference.
That’s why we summarize 3 - 5 takeaways from early conversations with supporting quotes underneath to support them.
In a way that tells a story rather than feeling like yet another business document to consume.
Flipping the brief can feel scary.
You’re taking a risk.
Going out on a limb.
But it’s always for the right reasons…to help your clients achieve their vision, faster.
Remember, flipping the brief has to be in their best interest.
Never, ever upselling for the sake of it.
But when done genuinely, the best clients recognize the value.
And keep you in their corner to help them see their vision to fruition.
If you’re looking for opportunities to flip the brief, drop me a note. What do you find challenging? Maybe I can help.
Thanks for reading Off-Menu! Subscribe for free to receive new insights & provocations.